Celebrating Mom’s Birthday

Yesterday my mom turned 57.  She’d hate it if I told you that, though.  Fifty-seven feels old even for a woman who has little time to think about vanity.  Mom came over to the house with my sister Posey who was visiting from Brooklyn.We had a picnic lunch and several pieces of a cake Quinn and I baked.  The cake resembled two pancakes glued together with teal frosting, but hey, it’s my first cake from scratch and I couldn’t find my measuring spoons.  Besides, there were pink sprinkles.

Important occasion or not, it’s never been easy to have Mom over at the house.  She sees the furniture that’s been in her family for years, pictures of her mother, and evidence of our lives that she has no part in.  But when I asked Mom if she wanted to go to a movie for her birthday she said she wanted to sit in a backyard, drink some iced tea, and put her feet up.  So, I asked again.

“Mom, it’d be fun to see a movie, wouldn’t it?”

She scratched her head and said, “I just want to pretend like I have a house.  Put my feet up and relax.”

I thought about trying to convince her that she really wanted to go sit in a cool movie theatre, but I stopped myself.  I decided to listen to her instead, which I don’t do that often even though I’m sitting right across from her.  She just wants to put her feet up.  To not have to walk from library to bus to shelter and worry about people telling her to go away or not to sit there or to quiet down.  I can handle her in my house for one afternoon, can’t I?


I don’t like having Mom at the house for several reasons, but the strongest is my fear that if I take her there a lot she’ll remember where I live and show up unexpectedly.  It’s been years since she was violent with me – I make pains to avoid the topics that set her off – but she threatened my grandmother with a knife when she was living with her and she’s just as unstable now as she was back then.   I used to feel guilty about it until I realized that it was more about what other people would think than what was right for me.  And this feels right.

Yesterday Mom roamed the house, telling me different versions of its history and make-up.

As she returned from the bathroom: “I figured it out.  Courage used to live here.”

From the Adirondack chair where she was putting her feet up on an upturned pot:  “Penny, I know, your house was made out of Adirondack ottomans.”

"See those dormers?"

From the lawn, looking out at the neighbors’ house: “Look at those pipes [coming out of the roof].  Those are communication devices.  See those windows in the dormers?  There’s three of them so that means that there will be a storm in three months…in…oh, let’s see, November.”

At which point Quinn leans over to me, eyes wide, “There’s gonna be a big storm in November, Mommy.”

I could only reply, “Mmm…maybe so, Quinn.  We’ll see, won’t we?”

As my sister and I were talking it over later that afternoon we were struck both by how terrible and how nice it is to just be able to do something simple that says, “I love you.  I want  you to be happy.”  We can’t get her to take medication.  We can’t force her to move into an apartment.  And worst of all, we can’t turn her back into who she was before she got sick.  Right now all we can do is allow her into our space, bake her a cake and find her a pot so she can put her feet up.  It feels wholly inadequate, but somehow it has to be enough because it’s all she’ll allow us to do.  Learning  to accept this is one of the greatest challenges of all.  But then she’ll say, “That was a good birthday; I got to relax.” And we realize that we’ve just given her all that she wanted.  Even though we want so much more, for today, this is enough.

Settling in for a chick flick.

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5 thoughts on “Celebrating Mom’s Birthday”

  1. I love the story and the photos, the way you write helps me to understand, in some small way, what it’s like to spend time with your mom. Thank you again, Pen, for teaching me how to live more thoughtfully by the way you embody tremendous grace through unimaginable circumstances.

  2. Dude, Penny. Your writings on your mother continue to inspire how I respond to the world around me, even when it’s not as I wished it was. Thanks for sharing.

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